Five Spiritual Lessons of Practicing Bankruptcy Law

banner_532

No one grows up dreaming of becoming a bankruptcy lawyer. When I was a little boy, I wanted to be an astronomer or an astronaut.  Even by the time I got to law school, bankruptcy was not on my radar: I was hoping to become a professor.  But here I am embarking on my 12th year as a bankruptcy lawyer (and 4th as a trustee), and I am so grateful for the experience.  Here are five spiritual lessons I’ve learned from my practice:

5. Compassion.  My practice was primarily on the debtors’ side for the first eight or nine years, and it’s hard not to feel compassionate when you sit down and listen to their stories.  My clients mostly came to see me due to job loss, illness, divorce, and business failure. They came in very frightened and stressed out, and I thought of it as my job to reassure them, alleviate their stress, and help them find their way peacefully into a new life.  I would always think “there but for the grace of God go I,” and treat them as I would want to be treated.  The policy underlying the bankruptcy code is called the “fresh start.”  Most other areas of law  favor the powerful and rich, but bankruptcy gives the poor and vulnerable a place of refuge.  Even when I represent creditors or the bankruptcy estate, I approach my work with compassion. 

4. Perspective.  The debtor is not the only party in a bankruptcy, however.  There are so many stakeholders, and no matter whom you represent in bankruptcy court, you’re not doing your job if you don’t advise your client of their rights in relation to those other interests.  Just a partial list of stakeholders includes the judges, the court clerks, the United States Trustee, the trustee, the IRS and the other taxing authorities, other federal and state government entities, creditors, debtors, suppliers, landlords, tenants, mortgagees, co-owners, and opposing counsel. Unlike a typical court action, a bankruptcy is not a two-party dispute, but a resolution of numerous conflicts and interests. In fact, if the conflict is only a dispute between two parties, you are likely to get kicked out of bankruptcy court.  You have to see the whole field in order to know what can happen.

3. Balance.  As much criticism as has been heaped on the bankruptcy code since its amendment in 2005, I find it to be an amazing vehicle to resolve all of these competing interests.  Though some provisions are rather one-sided (non-dischargeability of student loans and the inability to modify upside-down mortgages for example), the bankruptcy code typically utilizes principles of equity and compromise and reasonableness.  Section 362, addressing the automatic stay, allows the debtor to prove that a creditor’s collateral is “adequately protected.”  Section 1129(b) lets a debtor confirm a plan if its treatment of the creditors is “fair and equitable.”  Section 707(b) considers “the totality of the circumstances…of the debtor’s financial condition.”  In bankruptcy, you may not always get the result you desire, but I do think you always get a fair shake at trying to make your case.

2. Non-attachment.  Much of the time, a client comes to me seeking to keep something that someone else is trying to take away.  A debtor may be trying to stop a foreclosure or prevent an IRS levy.  A creditor may have been paid as a vendor within 90 days prior to a bankruptcy filing and may want to keep the trustee or debtor-in-possession from clawing back a preferential payment.  Each time, I have to patiently explain to the client his or her rights as well as the rights of the opposing debtor, creditor, trustee, or other stakeholder.  And sometimes I have to tell them that under the circumstances they are going to lose, or get a settlement at best, but that the bad result for them may be the best for the system as a whole.

Bankruptcy judges are very smart, and I have found them to be very wise, too.  They have a bigger perspective and act with Solomonesque balance.  The liquidity that’s gained through preference recoveries may help a debtor to reorganize, preserve hundreds or even thousands of jobs, and provide a fairer distribution for all the creditors even if my client is unhappy having to fund that.  A debtor may lose his or her property, but that may help the greater community when the property is repurposed to its highest and best use rather than remaining in the hands of a debtor who isn’t liquid enough to develop it.  As in most prayer and meditation practices, you have to take a deep breath and surrender to a higher power.

1. Gratitude.  Over my 11+ years of practice, I have gained a tremendous appreciation for the bankruptcy system.  It is protective to debtors and creditors and flexible enough to fashion unique solutions in each case.  Each new situation is also a complex puzzle that keeps me endlessly busy and researching.  It is a calling to go deeper, to learn more, to be a better member of the community.  Just as important, though, are the lessons of bankruptcy practice that I can apply to life: compassion, perspective, balance, non-attachment, and gratitude. 

The Suffering of the Lawyers (and My Thoughts on Networking)

I just received this excellent e-mail from Lisa Tatum, the president of the State Bar of Texas and wanted to share.

With Our Network, Everybody Can Win

“You need to be aware of what others are doing, applaud their efforts, acknowledge their successes, and encourage them in their pursuits. When we all help one another, everybody wins.”
— Jim Stovall

This past week, I was reminded of how many different places we, as attorneys, are. I am not speaking about our diverse tapestry—our practice areas and demographics; I am referring to our varying places of comfort or discomfort. Some of us are at a peak in our practices and are realizing our dreams of fiscal comfort and practice passions. Some of us are in a constant state of motion, with little or no rest, as we strive to meet monthly corporate and personal expenses. Some are just becoming aware of unrealized potential and are energized to take things to a new level. There are some who are fighting for equal pay for equal work. There are others of us who are exhausted, having worked for years toward a goal of eventual retirement, only to face conditions that make retiring impossible. Some of us had practiced for years and then faced unemployment after the economic downturn hit our profession in 2008, and are still unable to return to a position of financial comfort. Some of us are new lawyers, facing the challenge of finding any type of employment anywhere within the profession while loan repayment looms on the horizon. Some of us are doing okay.

Some of us are getting by with no major complaints. Some of us are right where we had worked and hoped to be at this point in time. Some of us see no prospect of employment while others struggle to supplement their professional income in order to meet living expenses. If only the general public understood that being an attorney does not always equate to wealth and abundance.

The battles against burnout, inequity, underemployment, and unemployment exist. They are real. But all of our circumstances can and do change. To be in a place of contentment, solvency, and realization of our dreams is a blessing indeed. It is a place where we all strive to be and to remain.

My position as president has its limitations. The State Bar of Texas as a quasi-governmental agency has limitations. The work of a network can be more effective than the development of any one initiative or program. We are an association of people.

We are a network of professionals. There are attorneys who need work; there are attorneys who are looking for additional attorneys and support staff. Individuals are seeking to meet needs that are full-time, part-time, and temporary. We are a network of problem solvers. We should help each other to the extent that we can. After all, an association is a community that one chooses to be a part of. Isn’t that what we want and purport to be—a professional community? Let’s put our community to work helping one another. This way we all win.

 

Lisa Tatum
President, State Bar of Texas

Networking has been absolutely crucial for my career, and networking with other lawyers has been the key part of that.  Networking doesn’t have to be a bad word.  If you are passionate about what you do, you will talk about it to your friends, colleagues, and community when you see them.  They will remember your enthusiasm and refer work to you.  And…that’s it!  Three points to be made here: 1. networking doesn’t have to come from a commercial motivation; 2. you don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to go or talk to anyone you don’t want to talk to; and 3. you don’t have to be pushy, in fact the best way to start is to ask someone what they do with genuine curiosity.

In part, my blog has been an effort to give back to the legal community of Texas that has been so supportive of me.  I hope that lawyers going through the issues she raises here – burnout, underemployment, etc. – will use this blog as a resource on their journey.

Big and Small

Vince - Copy

One of my sports idols, Vince Young, filed bankruptcy a week or so ago.  You can click here to see some video of him leading the University of Texas to its first national championship in 35 years.  I watch this video at least once a year to relive the joy of that moment.  Vince went on to play pro football and was quite successful at it – click here – but is now out of the league and has hit a rough patch.  Here is a news(-ish) report on the filing.

Hearing this news caused me to reflect on how circumstances can change so drastically in life and reminded me of another quote I heard recently from someone even more famous and accomplished than Vince Young.

Sandra - Copy

After her most recent Oscar nomination (for Gravity) last week, Sandra Bullock confessed to enjoying the attention and then commented, “but I do have an immediate leveler.  I still have to get up and make lunch for a little person, and pray — please, dear God — that he eats something I put in his lunchbox today.”  That made me laugh, because before I put on my trustee cap or my lawyer cap or the innumerable other caps I wear every day when I’m in charge, I start with the same cap Sandra wears – the parent cap.  And wearing that cap, being bigger only works occasionally.  More often I am reduced to begging: “Please eat.  Please finish up.  Please brush your teeth. Please put on your shoes….”

Pema and Barack - Copy

My meditation teacher, Pema Chödrön, is also a pretty big deal:  a multi-million selling author and world-famous spiritual teacher (she is pictured here with someone you may have heard of.  She doesn’t yet know that she’s my meditation teacher, but I’m hoping to meet her at a talk she’s giving in May and tell her!).  Here she goes through her own slightly comical story of reduced circumstances.

Being Big and Small at the Same Time

I was once invited to teach with the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, my teacher’s eldest son, in a situation where it wasn’t exactly clear what my status was. Sometimes I was treated as a big deal who should come in through a special door and sit in a special seat. Then I’d think, “Okay, I’m a big deal.” I’d start running with that idea and come up with big-deal notions about how things should be. Then I’d get the message, “Oh, no, no, no. You should just sit on the floor and mix with everybody and be one of the crowd.” Okay. So now the message was that I should just be ordinary, not set myself up or be the teacher. But as soon as I was getting comfortable with being humble, I would be asked to do something special that only big deals did. This was a painful experience because I was always being insulted and humiliated by my own expectations. As soon as I was sure how it should be, so I could feel secure, I would get a message that it should be the other way. Finally I said to the Sakyong, “This is really hurting. I just don’t know who I’m supposed to be,” and he said, “Well, you have to learn to be big and small at the same time.”

I think the lessons to take from all three stories, Vince’s, Sandra’s, and Pema’s, are that you are sometimes big and sometimes small, that you have to juggle those roles, and that there’s something to be gained from doing it gracefully.  I am sometimes quite big.  As a bankruptcy trustee, I am the only officer of the court most debtors and creditors ever appear before.  It can be a very powerful position.  However, I often deal with judges with more authority than I have, and many, many lawyers who are more accomplished than I am.  As I pointed out in my very first post, I am small potatoes in so many realms, including in my own family (at home, the kids know well that Mom is the boss)!  I try to carry the lessons from these other roles into my work as a trustee and a lawyer and remember that many debtors have been bigger than me and have fallen because they tried reaching for the brass ring that was just out of reach.  Even if they were rich or famous at some point, they are not so different from me.  We are both small pieces of an infinitely vast creation.

I think the reason we struggle with this change of roles is that we become attached to being big – to deference, to certain surroundings, to mental and physical comfort.  When we are not in our comfort zones, we suffer a little or a lot.  Vince was a much better football player than he was a financial wizard.  Sandra enjoys the limelight but worries about her child eating his lunch.  Pema is a better speaker than audience member.  In each case, the flipping of the roles brings a kind of suffering.

To bring it back to a circumstance we as people involved in the legal world can relate to, a few days ago I counseled a friend of mine, another lawyer, who was annoyed when a client questioned him.  The client is elderly and asked my friend to speak to the client’s son about the issue. My friend became indignant and made the assumption that the client didn’t trust him or thought the son was smarter than he is.  Those are not the words the client used – he may have just been confused about the issues presented – but my friend’s mind quickly went there, and he created his own suffering through his attachment to a certain status: the competent, benevolent lawyer.  When both his competence and benevolence were questioned, he became angry because he was attached to that role.  I asked him to hear the words the client actually used rather than creating suffering through his attachment to his assumptions about the words the client used.  He will be gentler to the client and himself, which, I think, is the first rule.

In the end, I think this is another reason to have a meditation practice, to remove those assumptions about ourselves that can hinder our ability to be the bigger person.

Joyful (Law) Practice

wound-rumi

When I started practicing law, I was anxious, petrified, depressed, terrified, you name it.  After a couple of years, I decided I needed some help, so I sought out a business coach.  She taught me to improve my performance, but more than that she taught me to eat right, exercise, meditate, and take care of myself for the long haul of a career.  I plunged back into law practice, working on eating better, losing weight, exercising, and meditating, and somehow, I managed to survive it.  After a couple more years, the work really started to click.  Issues began to be more familiar, cases became more routine.  I didn’t have to think so hard for each document or appearance.

It was the pain and fear I felt from law practice that opened me up to a path of self-care.  This, in turn, opened me up to other benefits.  I have more energy and more focus than ever before, and I am more present in my life than I was previously.  In work, this manifests in networking, mentoring younger lawyers, giving presentations, taking on pro-bono work, and it gives me the perspective to provide my clients guidance and wisdom.  In life, I am happier, fitter, a better family member, a more helpful person, and I can better appreciate the wonder of the world.

In sports or music or meditation, you practice and make mistakes before you go out and perform.  Law practice is not supposed to be that way: you need to start out a level that meets your ethical obligations.  But it is not possible to know everything when you start.  The first time you step into court or draft a client document, you are going to make mistakes.  The key is to accept this, and to learn from your mistakes.  That is how you improve.  As you improve, your worry lessens, and a path opens up to joyful practice.  We hear so much about how draining and deadening law practice is, but I have found just the opposite: that it can be a source of energy and awakening.

Anger, Part 2

zen

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

- Zen koan

Click here for my first, more personal take on Anger, which begins to answer the question.

Five Lessons on Fatherhood…from Despicable Me

A couple of weeks ago, I finally saw the 2010 animated film Despicable Me.  I am not, as you might guess from reading this, three years behind the times when it comes to movies.  I am actually more like 8 years behind.  However, I am relatively current on kids’ movies (I took the kids to see Despicable Me 2 the next day, during opening weekend).  So take what I am about to say with a grain of salt, since I don’t see many movies and I have forgotten what I have seen.

Anyway, I think Despicable Me is one of the best movies about fatherhood ever made.  The premise is that a super-villian, in the course of one of his villainous plots, winds up adopting three cute little girls who turn his life upside down.  Here’s the trailer:

[blog post continues below]

Here are five lessons on fatherhood I took from the movie:

5. Don’t tell the kids not to do something, because they’ll straightaway do it.  (Notice in the trailer when Gru says no noises, and Agnes makes a funny noise.)  If you mess this one up, the best response is to have a sense of humor about it.

4.  It’ll go harder for you if you don’t read to them at night.  (See the “Three Little Kittens” scene.)  Or do whatever else they want at night.  They’re tired, and their brains don’t function the same way as they do during the daytime.  You’ll want them to change or brush their teeth or get into bed, and they will dawdle and do anything but what you want them to do.  I don’t really know what the answer is, but it’s much better to be patient than to get mad.  If you get mad at them (or get sarcastic or try to set a timer or something), they’ll just break down, and then everything will take even more time.  I screw this one up EVERY SINGLE NIGHT.  (Maybe because I’m tired too?  And because I usually have some work deadline to meet once they get to bed.)

3. If you are going to count to three to get them to do something, make the consequences proportional and realistic.  In the movie (at 42:00), Gru tells the kids to pile into the car for the “cookie” delivery errand, and when they decide they are going to walk to dance class instead, Gru tells them to come back before he counts to three or “face the wrath of Gru.”  Wrath?  What?  I don’t think most of us really have the heart to use a freeze ray on the kids or put them in a super-villain shark tank.  Maybe you can threaten to take away videos or play dates.  Maybe, though, one way to handle it is not to threaten at all.  What’s wrong with putting off the “cookie” delivery errand until after dance class?  Life is long, and maybe your super-villain capers (or your legal briefs) should take second place to your relationship with your children.  If you manage your time well, there’s always plenty of time to write the brief.  And when you look back on your life, will your greater regret be not taking on additional work or putting your family in the back seat every time?  Gru goes to the dance class.  His relationship with his children blossoms and he still gets in his villainous caper.

2. When you are commanding them, try to sound like Steve Carell feigning Gru’s funny accent.  They always pay attention, and you may be a little more lighthearted.

And the number one lesson on fatherhood from Despicable Me:

1. Don’t ever try to fit in a conference call when the kids are home (and definitely not a videoconference if your house looks anything like mine when the kids are around).  Nothing good ever happens.  In the movie (at about 53:30), notice that that the kids have made a little change in Gru’s presentation to the bank: they insert a drawing of him on the toilet.

I got to watch the movie a couple more times while writing this post, and it has definitely held up on repeated viewings.  I hope you enjoy it!

A friend recently circulated this parenting article.  I loved the following, which is why I wanted to write an article on parenting.  I think it fits perfectly with the them of my blog!

5. Pushing your buttons is a spiritual practice, and children are our spiritual teachers.

You don’t need an expensive spiritual retreat to become enlightened. Your little sage-teacher is right in front of you, offering you true wisdom free of charge!

Children watch our every move when they’re little, studying our inconsistencies as they try to figure out this crazy world. And they will call you on it. When a child pushes your buttons, remember: they are your buttons, not hers. Take the time to listen to what your child is trying to teach you. One of the secrets of parenthood is our willingness to transform ourselves out of love for our child. When you’re willing to look at your buttons, you open up a deeper self-awareness that is transformative for both you and your child.

Gru is transformed by the end of the movie (and even more drastically in Despicable Me 2), and I feel the same happening to me.  Though I have to say that it was more fun being a super villain sometimes!

Anger is an Energy

Johnny Rotten

My title is a line from a great Public Image Limited song called “Rise” from back in 1986. I’ve put some links down at the bottom of this post so you can check it out. (Caution is advised: it may not be your thing.)

I have an anger problem. This is the main reason I gave up caffeine (the subject of a previous post, here). I have had less of a hair trigger since then, but I still can get quite angry. My number one priority right now is not to get carried away by anger. My resolution had been not to get angry at all, but a friend pointed out (and I’ve subsequently read similar views) that anger is just an emotion like any other emotion, and that it’s not possible or healthy to entirely try to eradicate it, as it would not be possible or healthy to eradicate any other emotion, like happiness or sadness. So my goal is to respond in a more measured way to things that piss me off rather than reacting too strongly or letting the anger fester.

The other day, I became very angry about something a work colleague did. Normally, I would have fired off an angry (and unprofessional) e-mail, or I would have let it fester in my brain, but this time I didn’t. I stopped myself and took a breath. I thought to myself, “as provocative as this incident is, I have made it my life’s goal not to get carried away into anger. I should try to defuse the situation rather than ratchet it up.” And so I wrote a very toned down e-mail asking questions about what my colleague was aiming at rather than jumping to conclusions. It led to a much more productive dialogue, and while the situation wasn’t resolved to my liking, it also didn’t lead to Armageddon.

The interesting thing about this incident, though, was the energy. I was fired up to respond with force, and then I didn’t do it. My energy level was super high, as it is when one is furious, but rather than turning it outward in rage and then inward in guilt and self-criticism, I channeled it more productively. First, I cranked through some work I’d been meaning to do…while listening to heavy metal. Then, I popped out of my home office when I heard the kids, and I chased them around for a while. There was an edge to my play, for sure, but I was more present than I often am with them. Then I wrote my blog post about meditation straight through with no breaks (You can read it here. The context is a bit different now, no?). My energy spent, I went to sleep. The next day, though, I was still feeling the residue of my anger, so I went for a run before work.

Given what I accomplished and the fun several hours I had, you’d have thought that I’d gotten some good news and was feeling joyful rather than ticked. I was a little bit giddy for the next few days as I practiced this alchemy at other moments of anger or frustration and experienced a rush of energy as though I had just drunk a cup of coffee or something. Each time, I thought to myself, “I am angry, but I have the option of being something else,” and then I figured out what the something else was–where the energy was taking me.

Very interesting, life. I’m going to do more study on anger as energy.

_____

Ok, here are two links to the song if you’re still interested. First is the original song by PIL, which, as I mentioned above, might not be your thing unless you’re a fan of pretty jangly post-punk. (It’s especially bad through laptop speakers.) You can catch the line “anger is an energy” repeated at 2:28 and again at 4:04. I’ve also linked to a gentler Brazilian cover of the song, just below. It’s a medley, and “Rise” starts at 2:32, with the line at about 4:46.